2 November 11 | Chad W. Post

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review had a few interesting pieces, including Adam Thirlwell’s review of David Bellos’s new book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which is, by far, one of the best reviews I’ve read about this title.

That’s not all that surprising, since Thirlwell is such an excellent writer and translation enthusiast. (His The Delighted States is definitely worth reading.) And this book is right in his wheelhouse (so to speak).

I’m just going to quote at length, since Adam gets so many things right about Is That a Fish in Your Ear?:

David Bellos’s new book on translation at first sidesteps this philosophy. He describes the dragomans of Ottoman Turkey, the invention of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg trials, news wires, the speech bubbles of Astérix, Bergman subtitles. . . . He offers an anthropology of translation acts. But through this anthropology a much grander project emerges. The old theories were elegiac, stately; they were very much severe. Bellos is practical, and sprightly. He is unseduced by elegy. And this is because he is on to something new.

Bellos is a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, and also the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication there (at which, I should add, I once spoke). But to me he’s more interesting as the translator of two peculiarly great and problematic novelists: the Frenchman Georges Perec, whose work is characterized by a manic concern for form, and the Albanian Ismail Kadare, whose work Bellos translates not from the original Albanian, but from French translations supervised by Kadare. Bellos’s twin experience with these novelists is, I think, at the root of his new book, for these experiences with translation prove two things: It’s still possible to find adequate equivalents for even manically formal prose; and it’s also possible to find such equivalents via a language that is not a work’s original. Whereas according to the sad and orthodox theories of translation, neither of these truths should be true. [. . .]

We’re used to thinking that each person speaks an individual language — his mother tongue — and that this mother tongue is a discrete entity, with a vocabulary manipulated by a fixed grammar. But this picture, Bellos argues, doesn’t match the everyday shifts of our multiple languages, nor the mess of our language use. Bellos’s deep philosophical enemy is what he calls “nomenclaturism,” “the notion that words are essentially names” — a notion that has been magnified in our modern era of writing: a conspiracy of lexicographers. It annoys him because this misconception is often used to support the idea that translation is impossible, since all languages largely consist of words with no single comprehensive equivalent in other languages. But, Bellos writes: “A simple term such as ‘head,’ for example, can’t be counted as the ‘name’ of any particular thing. It figures in all kinds of expressions.” And while no single word in French, say, will cover all the connotations of the word “head,” its meaning “in any particular usage can easily be represented in another language.”

The misconception, however, has a very long history. Ever since St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, discussion of translation has dissolved into the ineffable — the famous idea that each language creates an essentially different mental world, and so all translations are doomed to philosophical inadequacy. In Bellos’s new proposal, translation instead “presupposes . . . the irrelevance of the ineffable to acts of communication.” Zigzagging through case studies of missionary Bibles or cold war language machines, Bellos calmly removes this old idea of the ineffable, and its unfortunate effects.

Like the book itself, this review makes me really happy. It’s so positive and honest and uplifting and pragmatic—traits that aren’t always present in discussions about literary translation. (As Bellos said in an article we referenced earlier in the week, “bellyaching is part of the community.”)

Anyway, you must read this book. It’s brilliant and fun and incredibly informative. If you want a taste, we featured this at Read This Next, so you can read an excerpt by clicking here. And be sure to check out this piece that Bellos wrote about the origins of the book, etc.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .

Read More >

The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .

Read More >

Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .

Read More >

Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .

Read More >

Faces in the Crowd
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
Reviewed by Valerie Miles

At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .

Read More >

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar
Reviewed by Cameron Rowe

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .

Read More >

Self-Portrait in Green
Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .

Read More >